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Conservatism and compassion

Politics | Conservative candidates must change the perception that they do not care to win the hearts of all Americans

Mark Rodgers is the principal of The Clapham Group, “a company that seeks to influence culture upstream of the political arena.” Jedd Medefind is president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. They both are Republicans and have enough Washington experience—Mark as Sen. Rick Santorum’s chief of staff; Jedd in President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives—to know that Washington is not the solution to what ails America. They also forecast realistically that “the GOP will not win another national election until it proves that Republican goodwill is every bit as strong as Republican competence.”

The Clapham Group originally posted this article Oct. 10 on its website and we republish it below with permission. —Marvin Olasky

Conservatism is compassionate

After the shellshock of the 2012 election wore off, the Republican National Committee (RNC) released its “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, which rightly observed that “the perception that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years. It is a major deficiency that must be addressed.” Wisdom offered by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago helps us grasp the severity of this problem.

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He observed that what draws people to trust and follow a leader hinges on three main elements: competence (do they know what they’re doing?), integrity (are they trustworthy?), and goodwill (do they really care about people like me?). According to Aristotle, the importance of one far outstrips the others: goodwill. If people suspect you don’t care about them, they will rarely follow you, no matter how right your solutions may sound.

That’s bad news for today’s Republicans—particularly following the 2012 presidential election when their standard-bearer polled 20 points behind his opponent on perceptions of the candidates’ “caring about average people.” In another poll, only 33 percent believed Mitt Romney “cares about people like me.” Aristotle would have needed no other data to predict the election’s outcome.

Here’s another prediction Aristotle might make: The GOP will not win another national election until it proves that Republican goodwill is every bit as strong as Republican competence.

Admittedly, if forced to choose, most people would opt for competence over compassion in their brain surgeon or electrician. And most thoughtful voters point to specific issues and policies—not to a vague sense of a candidate’s goodwill—when asked by pollsters what drove their vote.

But humans are mysterious creatures, and matters of the heart often influence each of us more than we could explain even to ourselves, let alone pollsters. Whether in a friend or spouse, teacher, coach, or president, we want most of all to know that those who will shape our future really do care.

Demonstrating genuine goodwill demands more than a vision for a stronger economy. It is evidenced especially in sincere compassion for the struggling: the aged widow, the recovering addict, the single mom with two jobs, the kid with high potential and little opportunity. If a leader cares about people like those, Americans conclude, that leader would probably care about me, too.

Build on the bedrock

To be clear, the point isn’t that Republicans should start pretending like we care. Pretending is the worst thing we could do if we’re serious about leading. The Republican brand must always be built on the bedrock of who we really are.

But in that is truly good news. Because the Republican bedrock is compassionate. We see that clearly in history, personal action, and in policy.

History. In the mid-19th century, the GOP was first forged out of a commitment to defending the lives and liberty of the oppressed. This commitment has remained over the decades, from the fight against slavery to confronting Communist overlords during the Cold War. Even the 1964 Civil Rights Act received a much larger percentage of Republican than Democratic votes in Congress.

True, on policies that attempt to help the poor via massive bureaucracy or by privileging specific groups over others, Republicans have typically demurred. But when it comes to securing justice and opportunity for all, Republicans most always have led.

Personal action. As the incisive research of Arthur Brooks from the American Enterprise Institute has revealed, conservatives give a much larger percentage of their income to charity, volunteer more, and are even more likely to help a neighbor. Brooks found conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than liberals of equal income levels. Meanwhile, the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s “generosity index” consistently finds red states more generous than blue.

Conservatives may resist the kind of compassion that includes taking other people’s money and redistributing it. But when it comes to their own money, they are decidedly generous.

Reprinted with permission. © 2013 The Clapham Group LLC. All rights reserved.

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